NM could play key role in Interior revamp

Jul 18, 2018 12:00 PM

Michael Coleman | Journal Washington Bureau | July 8, 2018

A plan to dramatically reorganize the U.S. Department of the Interior and shift some of its management out of Washington – possibly even to Albuquerque – is moving ahead under Secretary Ryan Zinke, but New Mexico’s senior U.S. senator wants more information before any federal money is spent.

Zinke in December announced his intent to restructure the Interior Department, saying that the current configuration of the sprawling, 169-year-old federal land management department with deep roots in New Mexico is inefficient, cumbersome and duplicative. Deputy Secretary David Bernhardt – second-in-command at Interior – told the Journal last week that Albuquerque could play a pivotal role in the reorganization, possibly as the site of a national Bureau of Land Management headquarters.

Zinke wants to move hundreds of public employees out of Washington and create a new organizational map that largely ignores state boundaries. The new organization would divide most of the department’s 70,000 employees and their responsibilities into 12 regions based on rivers and ecosystems, instead of the current map, based mostly on state lines. The nine agencies within Interior operate separately from one another. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, for example, is managed out of eight regional offices. The Bureau of Land Management runs 12 state-based offices, one of which is in Albuquerque.

Zinke’s plan is to create 12 or possibly 13 management districts that would encompass all the relevant Interior agencies in each district and move some agency headquarters – such as the Bureau of Land Management – out of Washington and into the western United States. The idea is to put top Interior agency officials closer to the natural resources and cultural sites they manage.

The new configuration would also require different agencies with sometimes overlapping jurisdictions, such as the Bureaus of Land Management and Reclamation, to work more closely together, according to Interior officials.

“If you had senior managers working with each other every day on issues, I think you’d get a lot of issues resolved much quicker,” Bernhardt said. “Once these common regions are aligned, we’ll begin a robust and serious process of gathering data to share resources and services. We’re reorganizing to where we can to improve services to American people.”

The Department of the Interior has a broad portfolio that includes the BLM, Bureau of Indian Affairs, the National Park Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and five other agencies. The Department employs 3,749 people in New Mexico.

Interior officials hope to have the new boundaries in effect by 2019. It is not yet clear how much the reorganization would cost, how long it would take to fully implement or how many employees would be affected.